The Xbox box: from Incredible Hulk to Bruce Lee

I am at Design Management Institute meetings Xbox_jonathanhere on the Cape.  This morning there was a presentation from Jonathan Hayes (Design Director, Microsoft) and Michael Jager (Creative Director, Jager Di Paola Kemp Design).

Jager presented in the outfit of Master Chief from Halo.  Many of us were moved to tears.  That’s Jonathan on the right trying to calm us down. 

You will see in the photos to the right that the console is undergoing a redesign.  XboxThe first version, the Xbox, was, as Jonathan put it, designed to suggest the containment of tremendous power, a kind of Incredible Hulk, buttons popping, power unleashing, grab the kids, save the dog sort of thing.  You can see it in the bow of the top verticle plane and of course in the famous Xbox logo. 

This is great design because it is the sort of thing that every young teenager would like to see happen to himself.  There is a reason that comic book heroes are always going from Clark Kents to Supermen.  But it is wrong to patronize their kids for their fascination.  In fact, they have good physiological and emotional grounds for identifying deeply with Incredible Hulks.  This is very like the transformation being forced on them by adolescence.  And we must add to this a third effect that gives teens an interest in Hulk containment: in our lifetime, computer based gaming and cyborg enablements have expanded the Hulk opportunities exponentially. 

The Xbox was, in sum, an canny piece of meaning management.  It reached out to the first consumer, the early adopter, and spoke to them with an image and meaning they cared about.

But what happens when the Xbox decides it wants to move out of the basements of hollowed eyed teenagers into the the study, the dens, the living rooms of a massively larger audience?  The design team adopts what Michael calls a new "design sobriety".  And they looked for another way to talk about power through electronic augmentation, digital transformation.

Microsoft needed an image that is disciplined, more precise, nuanced, but still formidable.   And here, to the right, is what they did.  This is the Xbox360, available in stores in 5 or 6 weeks.  Xbox360Sorry, the photo is something less than perfect.  What it obscures is the fact that this Xbox box looks a little like parentheses turned back to back:  ) (   or  ] [ . 

Jonathan and Michael talk about this icon as "the inhale of breath before a strike in the martial arts."  So we have power represented here still but now appears in a new idiom, one that older, more mainstream consumers can embrace.  This is power with poise, power with grace, power from discipline, power from intelligence.  Nice one.

All of these "reach" strategies are daring ones.  More and more, we marketers find ourselves obliged to speak to 2 (or more) audiences with the same product design or brand.  (This is because there are more new segments, and more difference between old segments.  In this case: technologically enabled teens who come down to dinner having competing on line with friends in Ghana against enemies in the Philipines and now sit with parents who barely make their way through this morning’s newspaper.) In this case, Microsoft needed a design that speaks to the old consistency even as it recruits a new one.  The formula: semiotic sameness to keep the segment you have and semiotic departure to capture the segment you want. 

Will this work?  That’s the great thing about culture in capitalism.  We shall see whether this one design can talk to two very different groups. 

One thing is clear, the Xbox team is a lot like the "ring of light" icon on which they are working.  They are invitational, dynamic and overlapping in their energies.  This means they work as an international team, draw heavily on design players outside Microsoft, consult closely with the player community, and work towards an ever shifting consensus that is maximally alive to what is happening inside Microsoft and the extra-Microsoft worlds to which they belong.  (Michael said that at one point in the development process he saw what he thought was a perfect, lasting consensus come out of kilter in just 4 months.)

I sat there thinking, "Gosh, this doesn’t sound like the Microsoft I know.  What if…what if while reinventing the Xbox, they found a way to reinvent the mother ship?" Some one get in touch with the real Master Chief. 

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